Boris Johnson escalated his dispute with the European Union by warning he will do whatever it takes to keep goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Following talks with the EU’s key figures, the British Prime Minister said he would not hesitate to take unilateral action to protect the position of Northern Ireland in the increasingly bitter row over post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Mr Johnson met French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel in the margins of the G7 summit in Cornwall.
But Mr Johnson appeared frustrated at the way the talks had gone, saying: “I’ve talked to some of our friends here today who do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country and a single territory.
“I think they just need to get that into their heads.”
Mr Johnson insisted he did not want a trade war with Brussels, which has threatened to retaliate unless the UK imposes restrictions agreed as part of the Brexit deal signed by Mr Johnson.
The row – dubbed the “sausage war” – could mean chilled meats will not be shipped across the Irish Sea because of EU rules after the end of the month.
The UK is considering extending the current grace period without the consent of Brussels to ensure that sausages and mince can continue to reach Northern Ireland’s shops.
Mr Johnson said he would do “whatever it takes”, including using Article 16 of the protocol to act without Brussels’ agreement.
“I think if the protocol continues to be applied in this way then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16,” he said.
He suggested the EU was adopting a “theologically draconian” approach to the protocol, which effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods as a way of making sure there is not a hard border with Ireland and preserving the peace process.
That means goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain need to be checked to make sure they comply with EU rules.
“I certainly think that the protocol is capable of being used and interpreted – by the way, up to the EU – in a pragmatic way or a theologically draconian way,” Mr Johnson said.
European Commission chief Mrs von der Leyen said “we want the best possible relations with the UK” but stressed that “both sides must implement what we agreed on” in the Brexit deal.
French sources suggested Mr Macron told the Prime Minister that for relations between France and the UK to be “reset”, Mr Johnson must abide by the agreement.